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Bubbly holiday

A guide to the good stuff

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In my world, holidays are the time to gorge, slurp and wallow in absurd decadence. Bring on the mayo-laden spinach dip, the gurgling, fatty eggnog and the sugar-encrusted Santa cookies -- 'tis the season to throw calories to the hips and enjoy friends, food and, of course, drink. Self-indulgence is quite possibly the most righteous gift we can give ourselves -- and what evinces hedonism more than a glass of bubbly? Yes, this time of year, the corks fly and blurred visions of hangovers dance in our heads, but at least festivity makes the hangover worth enduring. And, with higher acidity and discreet fruit, effervescent wine pairs nicely with many a motley buffet. Here are a few tips about sparkling wines, to make the experience, but unfortunately not the ache, easier:

"Brut" means the wine is dry. If you see a bottle labeled "Extra Dry," it's not drier -- it's actually slightly sweeter than a brut. Go figure, but it's the truth.

"Cava," "Prosecco," "Cremant," Frizzante," "Sekt" and "Spumante" are all words for sparkling wine, but from different wine regions. Just like Kimberly Clark owns Kleenex, the French own the "Champagne" brand, so to play in this fizzy sandbox, the other kids had to claim their own name. The majority follow a similar process in birthing bubbles called method champenoise, so they aren't necessarily lesser-quality wine, just less expensive. That said, there's plenty of sparkling plunk out there, so shop carefully.

A vintage-dated sparkler is not necessarily better than nonvintage. If it has no date listed on the bottle, it simply means the winemaker blended wines from two or more years to produce an often more complex product.

Blanc de Blancs on a label indicates the wine was made from only white grapes, normally chardonnay. And Blanc de Noirs is the opposite -- it's produced from only red grapes, generally pinot noir.

The best way to chill a bottle is to place it in a bucket or sink with half ice, half water and a handful of salt for about 20 minutes. Of course, this means you didn't plan ahead and put it in the fridge for a few hours -- the easiest route to the cold stuff. Drink bubbly nippy -- 43 degrees to 48 degrees.

My recommendations for bubbly this season:

Mumm Napa Brut Prestige (California) Sour apple squirted with lime and dipped in sweet honey. Slightly earthy, but mostly the fruit reigns. The best deal I found. Their Blanc de Blancs is also fantastic. Sw = 2. $19. **** 1/2

Roederer Estate Brut Anderson Valley (California) Green apple tossed with walnuts and a handful of wheat germ. Slightly sweet with a warming, fresh-bread aftertaste. Sw = 3. $24. **** 1/2

Laurent Perrier 1997 Brut (France) Starts off with a toasted-curry aroma and leads into an elegant, tart acidity and lemony finish. Quite extraordinary, but at this price, it better be. Sw = 1. $68. **** 1/2

Korbel Chardonnay Champagne (California) Flowery and perfumey with kiwi, raspberry and a clean, crisp aftertaste. Shockingly good stuff from this oft-maligned winery. Sw = 3. $10. ****

Iron Horse 2002 Classic Vintage Brut Green Valley (California) Classic, creamy and elegant with lemon-lime and yeasty bread. Sw = 1. $30. ****

Barefoot Cellars Chardonnay Brut (California) Tropical with pineapple and a delicious musky flavor. For those who prefer a bit of sugar on their palate. Sw = 4. $10. *** 1/2

Schramsberg 2004 Blanc de Blancs (California) Acidic yet softly sweet with orange and peaches, with a subtle yeasty earthiness. Stylishly sophisticated and shy. Sw = 3. $35. *** 1/2

Grandin Brut Loire Valley (France) A unique flavor of black cherries, toasted hazelnuts and a touch of bitter clove. Great Champagne look-alike at a quarter of the price. Sw = 1. $10. ***

Segura Viudas Brut Reserva (Spain) Earthy, nutty almonds, with a refreshingly citrus and minerally finish. Sw = 2. $8. ***

Happy holidays!

Sweetness (Sw) rating is out of 10, 10 being pure sugar. Star (*) rating is out of 5, 5 being wine nirvana.

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